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Monday, January 7, 2013

Caniacs rejoice! Hockey's back!

Posted by on Mon, Jan 7, 2013 at 6:37 AM

RALEIGH—Caniacs will be smiling today. After 113 days, the National Hockey League lockout is over.

Cam Ward and the Carolina Hurricanes will return to the ice now that the lockout is over.
  • Photo by Rob Rowe
  • Cam Ward and the Carolina Hurricanes will return to the ice now that the lockout is over.
Sunday brought that happy news as well as an unfamiliar sight to PNC Arena. Men in red and black uniforms, on ice skates, were already slinging a puck around. The Carolina Hurricanes' American Hockey League affiliate Charlotte Checkers coincidentally played a long-scheduled game in Raleigh, defeating the Norfolk Admirals 3-1.

The first-place Checkers took the ice just hours after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr announced that the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement had been finalized. At 4:40 a.m., to be exact.

There are still many unknowns at this moment. The official start date of the season hasn't been determined. Team schedules haven't been made yet. Hundreds of players are hurriedly packing their bags to depart the European and Russian league teams that they've been playing for during the lockout. They have flight schedules and visas and work permits to deal with.

Oh, and they still have to write the actual CBA. "We have to dot a lot of I's and cross a lot of T's," a bleary Bettman said in his pre-dawn announcement Sunday at the Manhattan hotel where the final stretch of negotiations had been held. "There is still a lot of work to be done, but the basic framework has been agreed upon. We have to go through a ratification process and the Board of Governors has to approve it from the League side and, obviously, the players have to approve it as well."

But who cares? There will be a hockey season, albeit abbreviated to 48 or 50 games. It's likely that a quick training camp and preseason will be crammed into the next 10 or so days as players accumulate back home. Regular season games will probably begin around the weekend of Jan. 19. The NHL will firm all this up today or Tuesday.

As of Sunday, Canes players were still strewn about the Western hemisphere. The brothers Staal—team captain Eric and new acquisition Jordan—have been hanging around town, skating with a few teammates including goalie Cam Ward and defenseman Joni Pitkanen. Other teammates have been working out at their homes in Canada or elsewhere in the United States.

At least six Canes have been playing for professional teams overseas. Prize free-agent signee Alexander Semin has been sniping goals in his native Russia. Likewise, Jussi Jokinen and Jiri Tlusty have been skating shifts in Finland and the Czech Republic, respectively. If they're not in an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean as you read this, they're standing in line somewhere with their boarding passes in hand.

The players are coming back, but it remains to be seen if the fans do as well. All labor stoppages are emotional, but fans have been put through the wringer during these negotiations. For the first few months, fan sentiment largely fell with the players, who had accepted a hard salary cap after the entire 2005 season was lost to a lockout. But the hostile collapse of an intense week of talks in early November erased that sentiment. There are no good guys anymore, as far as most ticket buyers are concerned.

More than half the regularly scheduled season has been canceled. The Winter Classic outdoor game, in which the Detroit Red Wings were to have hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs on New Year's Day, wasn't held. If you've been following the lockout on social media or in the boilerplate "nothing happened" articles that news outlets have been putting up each day, you know that hockey fans are mad and disgusted.

Even as fans rejoiced on Sunday that hockey would be back, many continued to air that anger and disgust. One interesting idea is for fans to boycott the first game of the abbreviated season, to make the players play before empty seats. Owners wouldn't get the ticket revenue. Both sides would get a strong message from hockey fans.

But that won't happen. Hockey fans are deeply loyal to the sport to a greater degree than football, basketball and even baseball. A love for the game itself exceeds anger at particular owners, players or the negotiators whose faces we've all been getting sick of seeing beneath the headlines this fall.

A capacity crowd of 10,256 greeted the Checkers yesterday. They cheered every shift. Hockey's back.

As far as the Hurricanes are concerned, there's a lot of optimism in the air. After all, the Canes captured their first Stanley Cup championship after the last lockout, in 2006. Semin and Jordan Staal are expected to make the Canes much more of a scoring threat than they've been in recent seasons, although winger Tuomo Ruutu will be out until May after hip surgery.

Stay tuned for details on the preseason and regular season schedules as they become available, as well as a season preview once the boys of winter all return to Raleigh.

Clarification: Although the Hurricanes reported a "capacity" crowd for the Checkers-Admirals game, the capacity of PNC Arena in its hockey configuration, when all sections are open, is 18,680.

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After 113 days of posturing, tantrums and the silent treatment, NHL team owners and players finally have a collective bargaining agreement. But one question remains—will the fans come back?

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